October of 1864 was a busy month for the North Georgia community my family lived in and where I continue to live 150 years later. The little crossroads of Villanow saw the most men it had ever seen before in May when Gen. James MacPherson’s Army of the Tennessee made its way in to the Confederate rear at Resaca. Now in October, Hood brought the Confederate army through, with Sherman in pursuit.
On October 14, Hood arrived at Villanow with many prisoners, captured at blockhouses at Tilton and Buzzard Roost and from the garrison of Dalton—including the African Americans, who were now herded into a stockade made at the crossroads. A call was sent out to all local slaveholders to come claim their runaways, while the whites were paroled. No one knows how many were returned into slavery that day, but the remainder were taken with the army when it marched out later on the fifteenth toward the town of LaFayette (pronounced Lah-FAY-ette).
Sherman’s United States men soon came on and arrived in Villanow, as well. They pushed on through the fall beauty of the Armuchee (pronounced AR-mur-chee) valleys in pursuit.
Hood split his forces at Villanow, sending most of Alexander Stewart’s and Stephen Lee’s Corps south toward Subligna and ultimately Summerville. Meanwhile, he took Frank Cheatham’s Corps westward to LaFayette going over Taylor’s Ridge through Ship’s Gap, a narrow gap in the mountain located where Highway 136 cuts through today (a place I go past every day).
On October 16, the advance of Sherman’s forces would clash with Hood’s rear guard at Ship’s Gap.
On that day, part of General States Rights Gist’s brigade, Colonel Ellison Capers’ 24th South Carolina Infantry, was ordered to move his men to Ship’s Gap along with a company of the 46th Georgia to act as a rear guard. “The Brigade marched out of bivouack instead of taking up the line of march to the left, as of the night previous,” Captain John Steinmeyer remembered.
[W]e filed to the right, ‘A’ in front, and halted near the top of the ridge. Here a staff officer called for the Maj. and two right companies (A & L.) to report below, with him, to Col. Capers. Some distance down we met Col. Capers, who began to give me instructions as Major, when I corrected him by remind him of the return of Roddy, the night before, relieving me. He halted Roddy and Sherard with Co. F there and directed me to follow him with Co. A. We preceeded considerable distance, when I was ordered to deploy and prepare to make stubborn resistance at this point, we began by endeavoring to cut a large tree across the road. Col. Capers said the Cavalry Squadron skirmishing in our front would fall back on our line and contest it with us, to tell the Lt. Colonel of the Cavalry that for him. A bend in the road a hundred or two yards in my front induced me take the additional precaution of posting a picet there, and to place in advance on either flank a similar sentinel.
The rest of the regiment and the lone company of the 46th deployed atop the ridge and began constructing a stone wall for their defense.
A little later, the advance of the Union host was spotted: Gen. Peter Osterhaus’ XV Corps, the lead division being Gen. Charles Woods’ division of the Army of the Tennessee. These were the same men who had assaulted another part of Taylor’s Ridge in the Battle of Ringgold Gap the previous November. Osterhaus reported:
At 7 a.m. on October 16 Gen. Woods’ left camp, the Twenty Ninth Missouri leading, and struck the rebel pickets near Villanow. They retired constantly before the lively advance of our skirmishers, until they reached their supports behind strong breastworks at Ship’s Gap. This very narrow, rugged mountain pass winds along very steep slopes between two ridges which form a kind of a saddle. The rebels are intrenched on both ridges. Those on the nearest ridge held the direct attack of the Twenty Ninth Missouri in check. I, therefore, after reconnoitering the ground, ordered General Woods to send a demonstrating detachment on the left flank of the enemy, while around the right a stronger force was to get in the rear of them. The Twenty Sixth Iowa was detailed for the later duty.
Colonel Capers watched the Union approach with growing anxiety. “I placed Companies A and F, Captains Steinmeyer and Sherard under Captain Roddy, acting Major of the Twenty-four, about a quarter of a mile in advance down the mountain,” Capers wrote . . .
. . . and instructed Roddy to take advantage of the woods, deploy his companies and detain the enemy as long as he could falling back on the right and left of the regiment when pressed to hard. I cautioned him about the flanks and left him full discretion to act as his judgment decided, communicating with me as opportunity occurred. The cavalry passed about 10 o’clock and reported General Sherman’s head of column advancing on the gap. I rode down to Roddy and found his force disposed and was with him when the skirmishers of the enemy began firing. Riding back to an open place on the ridge to the left of the regiment, I could see the enemy trains and columns on the Villanow road and counted seventeen flags. Those facts I reported by courier to General Gist, who sent me a dispatch to tell me to hold as long as I could but not to lose my regiment.
Soon the Union advance began. “We were soon forcing our way through the thick underbrush that covered the side of the mountain, while once more the ping of the minie was heard on every side,” William Royale Oak of the 26th Iowa remembered.
Henry Birch of Company A fell a victim of flying bullets, and as Robert J. McLenathan, Henry O’Farrell, and the writer were advancing within 60 feet of the enemy’s outpost, consisting of about thirty men, who were posted behind piles of stone, and completely hidden from our view, we received a deadly volley, and poor O’Farrell feel dead with a bullet through his heart. McLenahan and the writer jumped behind a tree which was hardly large enough to conceal our bodies, and which was soon filled with bullets . . . . Just at that time our main line advanced and poured into the rebels a volley . . . .
Another member of the advance, Charles Dana Miller of the 76th Ohio, described the move:
[T]hrough the brush and over the rocks, [the men] dragged themselves up the steep slopes until they secured a position on both flanks and little in the rear of the Rebels. A few shots were fired from our division battery to open up the fight when the troops advanced as rapidly as the nature of the ground would permit. The Rebels were kept busy by the 26th Iowa in front that they were not aware of the presence of our boys on their flanks until they closed in so rapidly that few could escape.
Captain Steinmeyer recalled the assault:
We hold our own checking them readily, until their line began to lap ours, when I was forced to withdraw, keeping up a regular fire all the time. Of course, with their excessive numbers and seemingly urged forward, we were gained upon, and got back to Roddey’s line, which he had time to improve, by throwing up some slight protection, very little ahead of our pursuers. Here we together checked the advance, but I cautioned Roddy, we should soon be overlapped as I had been. Answering this he agreed, that I had best take my company to extend all possible our line to the right, which was downhill going into a valley. I succeeded in getting my men in position and was hotly engaged very soon when the process of overreaching us was commenced, and I could plainly see the evidence of the large force being massed on our right, concealed by thick undergrowth. I sent as well as made personal application for reinforcements and for information as to what supports were for us. Finally Capt. Roddy sent for me, and on reaching the road, near which he had kept his position, I found a company of the 46th Ga. under the Lieutenant. I directed the Lieutenant how to proceed, deploying to the right and moving in an oblique line . . . .
While thus employed, the Union attack that Steinmeyer feared struck and overwhelmed the outpost, “There seemed to have been a charge all round” Steinmeyer recalled. “The firing was heavy our loss must have been heavier than ever reported or estimated. I saw men falling around me . . . .”
Most of the command were captured, including Steinmeyer. The advance now moved up against the main line awaiting them on the summit. Colonel Capers later recalled the climax of the fight:
Very soon all the men of Companies A and F who had escaped capture came in and told us that a force had passed around each flank of their line and charging in had cut off Roddy and most of his command. The regiment was in the gap with the right and left companies deployed to protect our flanks. The enemy soon pressed up the mountain and charged our position but the well-directed fire of the Twenty-fourth soon drove him back. We continued to fire from the front and soon our vedettes reported to me from the left that a force was moving through the woods toward my rear. This determined me to pass the defile, and I accordingly commanded the regiment to the rear by the right flank, each company firing up to the moment of marching. The enemy did not press us.
Thus the battle of Ship’s Gap ended. The following evening, Sherman made his headquarters at the gap as the Confederates concentrated at LaFayette.